Webber, Vettel among those with interesting strategies for soft tires

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Trying to fit a round up of today’s thrilling Chinese GP into a few hundred words is not easy. The race weekend, as with the previous two before it, was always likely to be dominated by tires, but the relative difference in laptime between the two compounds here, surprised even Pirelli.

That speed differential between the two, offered the possibility of varying strategies in the race. We saw the majority of the top runners opting to qualify on the faster, yellow ringed soft tire, giving a faster ultimate single lap time, World Champion Sebastian Vettel was the most prominent driver to try something a little different.

Red Bull Racing’s strategy, initially with both cars, was to save the soft, short-life compound until the end of the race when the cars were lighter and would grip the track more. The compromise is that while running on the medium, durable tire, you’re in the middle of the pack at the start of the race when everyone else is faster and excitable and prone to accidents and traffic.

For Sebastian Vettel, you could say the plan worked. Starting 9th and finishing 4th is a good return and given a couple more corners at the end, he could have stolen 2nd.

One of the most interesting strategies, which we unfortunately didn’t get to see fully play out, was the one that Vettel’s teammate, Mark Webber. He was somewhat forced into by the team’s failure to fuel his car correctly in qualifying. Having been sent to the back of the grid for failing to provide a fuel sample to the FIA on Saturday, the team opted to pull the car out of parc ferme overnight and make changes otherwise forbidden under normal conditions…you can’t be sent any further back!

Red Bull were able to set the car up for the race, as apposed to the normal compromise set up to accommodate single lap pace in qualifying. This means they changed gear ratios and aero settings to enable Webber to overtake easier down Shanghai’s long straights, as well as having free choice on their starting tires. Having not completed the full qualifying session, he also had more new tires for the race than everyone else too.

Interestingly, starting last, they opted to start on the soft tire, which everyone knew wouldn’t last more than about 5 laps in the Grand Prix, but rather than run for the 5 laps, he pitted immediately and changed straight onto the preferred medium compound.
This enabled him to get the mandated soft tire phase out of the way without actually losing any track position. He rejoined after his stop, still last, but able to complete the whole race on the better tire and it looked to be a good move. At the point where the front runners were being forced to pit after lap 5 or 6, Webber moved up through the field and was looking like a real contender. The midfield runners who started on the medium tire would have to fit the soft tire at some point, so Webber may have rescued a good opportunity from a dire situation.

Unfortunately a questionable decision on Webber’s part to lunge past a Toro Rosso ended in collision and a forced pitstop for a front wing change. That in itself wasn’t the end of the world, as they were only a couple of laps short of their intended pitstop window, but the pit crew who broke world records last time out in Malaysia, went from hero to zero one race later.

Webber rejoined the race, but half way round his out lap, the right rear wheel detached from the car and his Grand Prix was over. It would have been really interesting to see the result, but that’s Formula One.

There’s been a lot of complaining about tires recently, some of it perhaps justified, but no one can say that today’s race wasn’t fascinating and had an incredible finish, and the Pirellis played a big part in that.

Marc Priestley can be found on Twitter @f1elvis.

F1 Preview: 2018 Australian Grand Prix

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Save for two occasions, in 2006, and 2010, the Australian Grand Prix has served as the season-opening event for the FIA Formula 1 World Championship since 1996, and this weekend’s event will be the 21st time that the city of Melbourne has kicked off the Formula 1 campaign.

The 2018 season is the fifth one of the current hybrid power unit era, the second season of the current aero regulations, and the second under Liberty Media’s guidance.

Last year saw titans Mercedes AMG Petronas and Scuderia Ferrari duel for supremacy for most of the season before Mercedes distanced Ferrari late in the season to take the constructor’s title and the driver’s title, with Lewis Hamilton, who is now tied with Sebastian Vettel on four world championships apiece.

Four drivers on the grid have Formula 1 world championships to their name: Hamilton, Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen, and Fernando Alonso. Scuderia Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley also has a world championship to his name as a two-time titlist in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

So, what can viewers expect from the 2018 curtain-raiser in Australia? A handful of things to watch are below?

2018 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Does Anyone Have Anything for Mercedes?

Only on one day during pre-season testing did a Mercedes driver lead the way – Lewis Hamilton was fastest on the final day of Week 1 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

However, all indications were that was by design, with the team focusing the majority of the second week, if not the entire second week, on long runs with their W09 EQ Power+ chassis.

Such a decision is an ominous one, in that it indicates the team is very comfortable with the amount of speed in the car and did not see a need, or desire, to show their hand during testing.

With that in mind, the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas may yet again have the best and fastest cars, and the team looks poised to potentially make it five constructor’s and driver’s championships in a row.

Ferrari and Red Bull Look to End Mercedes Reign

The biggest threats to Mercedes are undoubtedly Ferrari and Red Bull, the only other teams to win in 2017.

And both teams displayed a lot of pace during testing, particularly in the “one-lap speed” category. Ricciardo set a lap record around the Catalunya circuit during the second week, only for Vettel to supplant that mark later in the week. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen led the way during the final day of testing.

It is unknown how that pace will translate over the course of a race distance. Mercedes appeared to have an edge on both Ferrari and Red Bull over long runs and race simulations, but there is also a theory that neither Ferrari nor Red Bull had their true long-run form on display.

Still, if a team is going to knock off Mercedes, it will likely be either Ferrari or Red Bull.

McLaren on the Rebound?

Put simply, the previous three seasons for McLaren F1 Team were a bit of a disaster. Their partnership with Honda yielded point totals of 27 (2015), 76 (2016), and 30 (2017) in a three-year venture that was defined by poor reliability and underwhelming power.

The relationship hit a boiling point last year and both entities parted ways ahead of the 2018 season, with McLaren signing a new power unit deal with Renault.

Testing went better than in previous years, though the team continued to battle reliability problems. However, all issues appeared to be minor, needling issues rather than more significant, foundational problems, as the other Renault teams (Red Bull and Renault Sport F1 Team) had solid runs with few reliability issues.

The car does appear to have speed in it, so if the reliability problems are behind them, McLaren could be in for a rebound season.

Stuck in the Midfield Again

Formula 1’s battle amongst the midfield is set to be as fierce as ever as a host of a several teams have a chance at being “best of the rest.”

Sahara Force India has been the frontrunner from the the midfield teams each of the last two years, finishing fourth in the constructor’s title in both 2016 and 2017, though if the steady conflict between drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez continues through 2018, it could hamper their efforts significantly.

Renault Sport F1 Team and Haas F1 Team look to improve on their 2017 form, while Toro Rosso is in a new partnership with Honda power units…and has experienced a surprisingly smooth pre-season as Honda’s 2018 platform looks significantly better, with the team enjoying a solid run of testing with few, if any, reliability problems.

Williams Martini Racing and Alfa Romeo Sauber appear to be at the back of the pack entering the season, but both could battle for points finishes if those ahead of them falter.